MR. NORRIS CHANGES TRAINS (1935)

download (1)Christopher Isherwood, the author of this novel, is decidedly white and male. This is the thought I had before beginning to read Mr. Norris Changes Trains, a novel I’ve wanted to read for some time now and couldn’t put off any longer. I worried for a second about breaking my 2017 oath when I remembered, he’s gay! Of course! And so, I excitedly include Christopher Isherwood in this blog. He’s not an author I’d read specifically for the purposes of this blog – he’s dead for one thing, his work published from the 1930s-70s, and, again, a white man. However, he was an early openly gay author, an innovator of gay literature, and later (after moving to the states) became one of the first openly gay members of Hollywood society, and a lifelong advocate for gay rights, specifically, gay pride.  The real reason I picked up Mr. Norris Changes Trains, however, is because I fell in love with his prose about two years ago reading his much later autobiographical novel, Christopher and his Kind, and I’ve been dying to get to another book of his ever since.

From the first page, I was reminded of why I love Isherwood’s writing so much. He has an unsettling knack for describing experiences that, not only are you completely unable to describe, but have been unable to fully identify or consciously realize you’re experiencing. Isherwood has a remarkable ability of seeing through people and human interactions and committing them to paper, both eloquently and exceptionally clearly. An example:

“The tiny flame of the lighter flickered between us, as perishable as the atmosphere which our exaggerated politeness had created” (4).

Mr. Norris Changes Trains feels a little like a character study. The character of Arthur Norris begins as a mystery, and as the novel progresses, the reader comes to understand his nuances, mannerisms, and general disposition as the narrator does. The narrator is a loose representation of Isherwood himself, but in Isherwood’s earlier novels (like this one), Isherwood is mostly an observer and, while an active participant in the events of the story, does not analyze himself as a character the way he does in his later (and better) autobiographical books about his years in Berlin.

The setting of Berlin in the early 1930s begins as a minor character itself, and increasingly comes to the center of the story as political tensions become more intense and the Nazi party gains more and more power. The setting is definitely the background, however, and not what the book is about. The book is about characters and the characters happen to be living in and greatly influenced by Berlin. The result is a really interesting look into how Berliners viewed the Nazi party (most hated it) and the politics of the time in general.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Norris Changes Trains, I don’t think I would have been able to without having read Christopher and his Kind first, and that is the novel I would recommend if you have any interest in reading Christopher Isherwood. With that said, you can expect remarkable prose and fascinating subjects out of any Isherwood novel you choose.

Links: Isherwood Foundation .org Goodreads | Amazon

HALF OF A YELLOW SUN (2006)

Half of adownload Yellow Sun is so breathtaking that I feel uncomfortable reviewing it. I’d never even heard of Biafra before picking up this novel, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m in the minority for people my age. And yet, Biafra was, briefly in the late ’60s, a nation and a place that saw human suffering to an extent and on a scale comparable to the holocaust. Imagine never having heard of the holocaust. Well I’d never heard of Biafra. If that isn’t concrete proof of the extent to which eurocentrism influences what we know about the world, I don’t know what is.

There is no “best part” to this novel because every element of the story is as incredible as every other. The characters, the plot, the writing style, the pacing, and the structure all work together perfectly to form this masterpiece. One of the great achievements of Half of a Yellow Sun is its ability to depict extreme suffering without alienating the reader. Think about the times when you’ve watched a documentary or read a book or even seen a starving children in Africa ad where what’s happening seems so detached from your own life that its impossible to conceive of the suffering as happening to real human beings. Half of a Yellow Sun avoids this entirely. First, it’s enjoyable to read! It doesn’t feel masochistic in the way it sometimes does to read about human suffering. It’s relatable and understandable. It’s engaging and page-turning. All of the characters are living full and complex lives. There’s a huge depth of characters and places and plots unfolding. And so, when you realize that these same characters, characters who have careers they worked hard for, who have families, who attend university, who write poetry, who have music collections, who have access to modern day luxuries, are living as refugees, faced with starvation, and consumed with war, the shock you feel is real and intimate as opposed to a detached sadness for a suffering so far removed from your own life that its reality is inconceivable.

And one of the most striking elements of Half of a Yellow Sun is how subtly the characters suffering increases. It seems to happen both slowly and then all-at-once. You’ll think you’re seeing suffering and then realize the true suffering hasn’t even begun and then realize that over and over and over again. You’ll look back at a scene 100-pages previous and be shocked with how much the characters situations have changed and with how much suffering you’ve become accustomed to as the reader. And then you’ll look back 100-pages later with the same shock all over again. For awhile you’ll convince yourself that there’s a certain type of joy that can be found in a people suffering together, and then you’ll come to realize that some human suffering reaches an extent so extreme that there’s room for nothing else.

Half of a Yellow Sun had a real impact on me and reminded me how and why literature can be so powerful. It’s a book I’ll never forget and one I’m sure I’ll be reminded of and return to frequently. I would tell anyone and everyone that it’s an absolute must-read. If you haven’t had a chance to read this novel yet, no matter how long your reading list is, put Half of a Yellow Sun at the very top.

Links: Chimamanda .com | Goodreads | Amazon

BOOK OF CLOUDS (2009)

downloadMy experience reading Book of Clouds suffered slightly from skewed expectations. I kept waiting for something to happen, for the story to really kick in to gear. Each time something out of the ordinary occurred, I’d think, this is it! Now the story really begins! And then it wouldn’t, at least not in the way I expected. In retrospect, I’m probably not the first person who’s read Book of Clouds and felt this way, and this is, in part, what Book of Clouds accomplishes.

The novel follows a young woman, probably in her mid twenties, living alone in Berlin, an expat from Mexico where the rest of her family still resides. The setting of Berlin is what drew me to this book. I’ve been fascinated with post-war Germany and specifically Berlin for a few years now, and so a novel about a foreign girl living alone in Berlin was appealing to me for obvious reasons.

Beginning early on in the book there are scenes that don’t seem quite real, for example when the protagonist reflects on a memory of seeing an old woman on a train who resembled Hitler so precisely that she decided it was indeed Hitler himself on the train with her. Every time one of these not-quite-real scenes occurred, I’d expect the story to transform into something else: something with magic, or a mystery, but it never did. Instead, it was almost disappointingly realistic. A chance encounter doesn’t become a great love. Her employer, an old historian, never really opens up to her; never spills his secrets, if he has any. There’s no one hiding in the attic apartment upstairs. People and places are left behind without a fuss or dramatic parting of ways. And to me, this is what Book of Clouds was about. It wasn’t particularly hopeful, but didn’t leave me feeling hopeless either; there was an absence of expectation- positive or negative. It was, even with the magically-charged moments or dream-like scenes experienced by the protagonist, strikingly real.

Links: Interview with Chloe Aridjis | Goodreads | Amazon

STORK MOUNTAIN (2016)

downloadStork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov, a Bulgarian who moved to America at 18,  is a strange novel, and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. While I have a lot of criticism for it (albeit vague criticism as you’ll read shortly), I enjoyed it, and I certainly don’t regret reading it. It’s a book that I likely never would have picked up if I wasn’t specifically looking for books by Bulgarian authors, and finding books by chance encounter is one of my favorite means of discovery.

Stork Mountain is difficult to follow. Stories pick up and then lose track of themselves in other stories. There’s multiple romantic narratives, familial narratives, historic/cultural narratives, and spiritual narratives taking place in different centuries and on different timelines, but that are all woven together. It’s a book best read with as little interruption as possible (I mistakenly began it before leaving for Bulgaria and did not pick it up again until I returned and consequently struggled to keep track of the multitude of stories). It feels almost too big for itself, like it’s trying to do too much, cover too much in one novel. It’s broken up into seven parts, and I couldn’t begin to differentiate one part from another.

The best moments in Stork Mountain are the ones dealing with the long, difficult, inter-woven histories of the Turks, the Greeks, and the Bulgarians. The Muslims and the Christians. The rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the rise and fall of communism. There’s a fascinating, tragic, deep-seeded history in this part of the world that is all but unknown to many people in the West. And while I criticize Penkov for trying to force too much into one book, its hard to blame him when the history of this region is so vast and so varied. Whether or not you choose to read Stork Mountain, I’d encourage everyone to expose themselves to more stories from Eastern Europe because there is a history there that is just as valid, just as vast, just as complex, and more ancient than anything the western world has to offer.

Links: Miroslav Penkov .com | Goodreads | Amazon

AN UNNECESSARY WOMAN (2013)

download-2Every once in awhile, I’ll pick up a book, and no more than one page in, know that I am at the beginning of something special. I’ll pause my reading and allow myself to bask in the anticipation of everything to come. Great beginnings are hard. Great endings are much harder. An Unnecessary Woman has both. A perfect beginning, a perfect ending, and perfect everything in between.

The novel opens with the protagonist, Aaliyah, a 72-year-old woman in Beirut, basking in anticipation of the new year. She is the definition of a bibliophile, and to pass her days alone, and to provide herself with a feeling of purpose, she translates. She translates novels following a strict set of rules: nothing written by French or English speaking authors, and every project begun on the first of January.

Aaliyah:

“The year is long dead. Long live the new year! I will begin my next project. This is the time that excites me most…Beginnings are pregnant with possibilities. As much as I enjoy finishing a translation, it is this time that tickles my marrow most. The ritual of preparation.”

And then acknowledging the strictness of her routine:

“Yes, I am a tad obsessive. For a nonreligious woman, this is my faith.”

I read these first pages, Aaliyah’s anticipation and her contemplation of that anticipation, just as this new year began. My first book of the new year and anticipation for a new year is the first subject!  Aaliyah is trying to explain her illogical obsession with the ritual of the beginning of a year just as I was doing the same. I love New Years Eve. I love New Years Eve as much as I am boggled by why it should mean anything to me at all. A completely arbitrary division of a completely arbitrary concept, time, and yet every year it humbles me in how monumental it feels.

And Aaliyah’s love of ritual spoke to me as well. While she follows a ritual to translate, I follow a ritual, albeit a much simpler one, to read. I have a notebook, a physical notebook because there is something satisfying in handling a physical object in which I handwrite, where I keep track of every book I read. I allow every book I read only one side of one page of the notebook, no matter how long the book or how much I have to say about it. On the first line I write the name of the book, on the second the author and the year of publication, on the third, the date I begin reading the book and later, the date I finished reading it, and then every line below left open for notes I take while reading. There’s no real reason for this repeated ritual other than it adds to the anticipation of beginning a book, it is all part of the process.

An Unnecessary Woman is full of Aaliyah’s musings on literature, books she loves, books she hates, and why. She particularly hates books with “epiphanies” ; books that explain away tragedies, giving every tragedy a purpose. And yet, An Unnecessary Woman, ends with an epiphany of its own. Not an epiphany that makes the past, or anything, okay, but an epiphany that allows Aaliyah to keep living, to keep moving forward without falling into despair.

Near the middle of the novel, Alameddine writes:

“Joy is the anticipation of joy.”

And then the book ends with the sentence:

“I take a long breath, the air of anticipation.”

A perfect beginning, a perfect middle, a perfect end.

Links: Rabih Alameddine .com | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: classic literature, books about books, reflective protagonists, beautiful sentence-level writing, historical fiction, female-led stories, middle-eastern history

 

ANOTHER BROOKLYN (2016)

another-brooklynReading “Another Brooklyn” is like encountering someone’s memories. It doesn’t progress chronologically, instead it moves the way memories do; out of order, one gliding into the next. I can’t say I loved this book, but I did love a lot of things about it. Every so often I noticed a sentence or a phrase so beautiful that I’d have to pause and read it again out loud. If you enjoy beautiful, poetic writing, this is for you.

Written as a series of memories, it follows a young girl growing up in Brooklyn between the ages of 8-15 with her 3 best friends. If you think girls as young as 8 don’t know what it’s like to feel looked at, or that your skin color doesn’t affect how you experience the world from day 1, or that things that may seem like small injustices can’t cause huge trauma…give this a try. It’s beautiful and sad and interesting and makes you think about how you interact with your own memories.

“The four of us together weren’t something [boys] understood. They understood girls alone, folding their arms across their breasts, praying for invisibility.”

Links: Jacqueline Woodson .com  | Goodreads | Amazon

You’ll like this book if you like: poetry, lyrical fiction, realistic fiction, coming of age stories